My road to Canyons started last fall at the Overlook 50k. My buddy, spiritual adviser, and de facto coach Lance had keyed me into that run as a low-key way to get some miles on the Western States trail, which I had never run on. On a misty, cool, out-and-back day (the river was deemed too high to cross due to the record rain already that year) I smashed my 50k PR by 30 minutes and had a blast running the rollers of the WS course and cruising over No-Hands bridge for my first time.
Lance told me that Ann Trason had told him that this trail was magic, and that he had no reason to believe otherwise. It wasn’t often that Lance, a professional, secular scientist spoke of things like magic. I was hooked immediately. I stayed up until midnight the night before my local Berkeley Half road marathon to reg for Canyons, and then had an immediate fear right after pressing the button. What the hell did I just do?!?!?!
I ramped up with solid blocks of training – a couple of bouts with the flu here, a slightly tweaked runner’s knee there, but overall it was the most consistency I had ever managed to lay down in one six month stretch. My emphasis was vert and miles with tired legs, as opposed to piling on the hours during the busy work and family weeks. I got a preview of the course at the Ruck-a-Chuck 50k in March, and finished feeling strong and not broken whatsoever for possibly the first time. My mind was starting to wrap around the idea of running twice that far in one day.
About 3 weeks to go I told Lance I had figured it out – I could run a 7 hour 50k no problem, and I would even be holding back, so two of them in a row didn’t sound like such a big deal. He chuckled a bit and said that it wasn’t that simple – that you get so tired the other parts of your body start to go, and that’s when the real challenge began. I had a vague idea of what he meant but had certainly never experienced that from running before. In this case ignorance was bliss.
We hit the start line on a beautiful morning for the Canyons 100k. I had studied the elevation profiles of the course in depth but had never been on the Canyons part of the course. I was immediately in awe of the silence and the beauty, as the sun rose over the ridges and our feet were already soaked from an exciting Volcano Creek crossing. The birds woke up just as we did, and the groggy yet excited runners began their chit-chat that would be the only thing to keep us moving at various parts of the day. I talked with a dude named Justin from Walnut Creek, cruised through Michigan Bluff the first time, and glided down the descent to El Dorado Creek on exquisite bermed single-track. I knew the climb up to the pump was the big one, and I just started power-hiking from the bottom. I grouped up with a chatty group, some from Carmel, some from Oregon, and we powered up the first half of the climb. I was feeling good toward the top so I pushed it a little bit more into the Silver State Striders aid station at the pump where we were greeted by life size unicorns and some R&B pumping out of a boombox.
I hopped on the elevator heading down to Swinging Bridge and caught the first glance of the leaders. Lance was sitting about 6th place overall, slogging back up in a small group, looking absolutely miserable and hot. I couldn’t understand why everybody was hurting so much – it wasn’t that hot out, and my legs still felt fresh. And then the trail kept going down, down, down…. Until we grabbed a wristband at the turnaround and I immediately realized why everyone looked so grumpy on the way back up. It was steep!
I just kept trucking and got off the trail for the other trains powering down, trying to smile a bit so they didn’t get the same uncomfortable feeling that I had just experienced. Patience, Poise, and Progress was my mantra for this race – and it was right here I started tapping into Patience the most. The going was so slow (a couple of 20+ minute miles) and while I knew I was making progress, I was freaked out by the pace. I finally crested the ridge to the pump again and switched into downhill gears, ready to float back down to El Dorado Creek.
It was here that my first true zen moment of the race came. Many people ask ultra-runners why they run so long, and push so far – and one of my answers is that you increase the chance of hitting the zen at some point along the run. It’s like asking a Deadhead why they have to do the entire summer tour – the answer is because if they don’t do every show, they might miss that one night of unpredictable spontaneity and magic. The farther you run, the higher you get, and the higher your chances of everything clicking becomes.
I found myself in a group of 4 runners – 2 other guys and one woman – all hitting about the same pace on the huge descent back to El Dorado. We tucked in together and became one force rolling down the mountain. Passing folks here and there, deftly pointing out only the biggest obstacles that might claim the person in the back, and gently ramping up the pace the whole time. It was one of those times when you can turn your brain and your body off and just be; when you can hop on the flowing ley lines of life and celebrate the miracle that we live every day. It was glorious.
And, as with everything in life, there was a price to pay. I knew my heart rate was getting up a bit on the way down, I knew my legs were probably moving a bit too fast, and yet I consciously decided to go with it. And then I had to climb back up to Michigan Bluff. It was my first entry into the pain cave of the day – I made the mistake of looking at the actual clock time on my watch. I had been running for about 5 hours so far, near the length of a normal 50k… and it was only 10:30AM. I knew I would be racing the daylight to get back to Foresthill the second time, and my brain knew that 10:30AM was a long way away from the sunset on that day. It didn’t take long for the simple math to add up – I had a long, long way to go still.
It was there I started to lose track of my mind for the first time – for a dark 10 minutes or so of the climb I had decided that I could just drop at the Michigan Bluff aid station and help volunteer for the rest of the day. It would be great! I could help all of these runners get through their race, I had done the hardest part of the Canyons (mostly), and I wouldn’t have to hurt any more!! Genius!! Of course the moment I saw the aid station that idea thankfully vaporized as I filled up my water, grabbed some Gu’s, grabbed some potato chips, and started walk-eating down the trail again.
Volcano Creek felt amazing the second time through and I soaked for about 60 seconds until I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. The Bath road section up to Foresthill went fine, and I started wrestling with the idea of seeing my family at the halfway point. I had hinted that I would love for them to be there, but when we left it the night before they likely weren’t going to head up, as the boys were tired, and it would be a long hot day for them. I had resigned myself to the fact that I could crew myself and keep heading down the trail. And then, as I saw the finish line along the main drag, I saw my wife on the side. My boys ran out on the road and started running with me to the drop bags. I was absolutely ecstatic! To top it off, my high school cross country varsity team nephew was there, grinning ear-to-ear, soaking in the pinnacle of the ultra-running world on that day at Foresthill Elementary School.
I told them I needed to stop less than 10 minutes – my wife got be a steak taco (I had been craving fat and real food the entire first half), my nephew filled my bottles and got me Gu’s, and I changed my shoes and did some quick foot cleanup. I hit the port-a-potty (perfect timing!) and headed down Main street, at exactly 7:00. I had kicked around the idea of sub 14 hours in my head and knew I would have to hustle to make that happen.
I had never run this part of the course before, and there were some ribbons up, but it was a bit unclear. I remembered hearing a podcast once where they talked about Main Street turning onto Cal Street and then heading right into the trail, which is why the stretch through Cal 1 and Cal 2 is called “Cal Street”. This kind of made sense in my head and I followed the road until it dead-ended and I hopped back on the trail. I had made it to Cal Street and my legs were still feeling okay!!!
I was still so hopped up from seeing my family that I probably bombed the descent a little too fast. I had left my heart-rate monitor at the halfway point, wanting to run with my GPS but no heart-rate information for the second half. I was excited to get onto the part of the course that I had run before, and excited to get to the river. The descent to Cal 1 was great, and I refueled quickly before hitting the hot and dry stretch before Cal 2. It was here that I began to understand what Lance had warned me about – that running 100k through the Canyons was much more difficult than just running two 50ks.
For the first time ever in my running career, my stomach started to go sideways on me. I began to immediately feel dehydrated, and yet adding more water into my stomach seemed like a really bad idea. I had been eating a Gu every 30 minutes up until this point and the thought of even taking one out of my shorts was enough to make me dry heave on the side of the trail. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, and could barely run.
Patience. Poise. Progress.
It was the progress that I focused on here. I kept running, kept walking, kept making forward progress. I loosened the straps on my back for some extra room and tried to breath consciously and direct energy and oxygen to my stomach with my mind. I repeated my mantra over and over again. Poise. Progress. And really the try-not-to-puke-in-the-bushes-but-if-you-do-just-keep-going part of the mantra, wherever that was.
It was there that the bigger issues of longer ultras clicked again – it was kind of about the running, but it was mainly about the systems that you had to manage for an entire day out on the trail. Could you stay hydrated? Could you keep eating? Could you keep your feet in shape? Could you keep moving fast enough to make the cutoffs? Could you stay cool? Could you keep putting one foot in front of the other? Could you keep your shit together while running through the mountains all day long?
I was deep in the pain cave for the second time of the day when I saw some day-hikers that told me Cal 2 was “just around the corner”. I cruised into the aid station celebrating the minor victory of keeping my steak taco down and knew I had to figure something out. The Sprite was calling my name, as was a silver tin cup they had on the table. I filled it up with ice, added some Sprite, and topped it off with some water. This was like God had descended from the heavens and ordered me a custom cocktail. It was cold. It had some calories. It felt good on my stomach. I got some ice on my neck and headed back down the trail, knowing that I had the longest stretch of the day before Rucky Chucky ahead of me.
At this point I was hitting the Progress quite a bit in my head. I knew I had to stretch my water out, and so I made a rule that I could only drink when my mile beep on my GPS went off. Then I could drink 1/3 of one of my two bottles. If I did that I could make it to Rucky Chucky at the end of my water. The tactic worked great – it kept me moving along, kept me drinking, and made me do a little dance of joy every time my watch beeped at the end of each mile. At mile 47 I arrived at the second turnaround to the smell of bacon. I had been dreaming of bacon for the last 10 hours – I wanted fat, I wanted salt, and I wanted it now. And yet, as I watched the bacon sizzle in the pan in the 90 degree heat, I wanted no part of it. I relayed this story to the bacon chef and he strongly encouraged me to at least try a piece, which I did. It was OK. The real story was the watermelon dipped in salt. Oh yeaaaaaahhhhhhh……
Now I was in the final stretch and I could smell the barn. I took the liberty of dipping in a few streams up to my waist, since my shoes were already wet again anyway, and began the long slog back up the hill to Foresthill. It was a unique experience doing a double out and back – you saw each one of your fellow comrades twice along the course. I was in the relative front portion of the run, and so there was a constant stream of folks heading down to Rucky Chucky as I was going back up. Every single person was so incredible positive and supportive. The community was alive on those trails that day – from the front runner group who were saying high to everyone too, to the folks at the end chasing the cutoffs for the race.
Time turned elastic as 10 hours turned into 11 and then 12 and then 13….. running the math in my head I knew that I was going to have to turn on the afterburners to make the 14 hour mark in my head. I was taking a few extra minutes at the aid stations (Cal 2 had some bomb ass quesedillas!!! And my silver cup still!!!!) which wasn’t helping, and my legs were starting to feel the miles of my first 100k. Patience. I was racing no one but myself out here, and I was doing a damn good job. I would finish when I finished.
As I came out of Cal 1 the central governor was turned off and I pushed it up the final climb. A few spectators told me to “enjoy the finish”, which at the time sounded deep and profound. Damn straight I needed to enjoy this finish – my running mediation through the mountains was about to come to an end. My body was still in one piece. My knees had held strong. My mind had waivered a bit, but was far from broken. I was going to finish this thing!!
I hit the pavement of Cal Street and knew I had to go for it now – the climb up Main Street was painful, but I saw the finish and locked on it and Lance waiting for me just behind the line. 14 hours and 17 minutes later I had finished my first 100k, run the farthest I have ever run in a day, and qualified for the Western States Lottery. Yeah!
I was visibly in awe of everyone out there that day, no matter where (or if) they finished. I was in awe of the human body as a whole – the fact that humans can go out there, run 63 miles through the mountains, and live to tell about it. The whole day I kept coming back to a very primal based feeling of tracking game and running through the wild as our ancestors did when they invented the original “Persistence Running”. One of my students understood it best when I told him that I had run 63 miles in 14 hours through the mountains – he simply said “Wow, you would have caught the deer by then.” Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and adaptation have brought us here, to our upright-walking, sweat-producing, elongated-achilies heel having, water-bottle tool using selves. And 300 plus people just tested their abilities out on the Canyons course, together.
Patience. Poise. Progress. All day long.